let's visit · Personal

What I Learned When I Met USFRA in St. Louis

st louisimage source because I always forget to take decent pictures

I’m writing this sitting outside of the Starbucks at gate E18 in the St. Louis airport. It’s 6:15 in the morning, I’ve been up for about two hours, and an espresso frap has never tasted so good!

I’ve spent the last few days in St. Louis with the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in training to become a Sustainability Officer, and I think I might sleep for a week when I get home (okay, except not because Bert’s been flying solo and that would be a very unkind thing to do to him) because I don’t think I’ve had this level of sustained excitement and human interaction since our wedding!
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I’ll talk more about what I’ll be doing as a Sustainability Officer in a future post, but while it’s still fresh, I wanted to express a few things I’m taking away with me from these past few days.

  1. We are all connected. Farmers, ranchers, food companies, consumers, and on and on. Sometimes we can get stuck in our own little industries, or feel like what we produce is very different from what someone else is doing, but that’s not the case. We’re all connected, and we should behave as such. I naively (stupidly?) thought that there’s no way I could share much with a soy farmer or even a dairy farmer outside of the very basic things, but oh how wrong I was.
  2. Sustainability is really, really complicated. It involves not only the practices on the ground on the farm or ranch, but it’s also being incorporated into marketing and business plans, and is a key part in consumers’ perceptions of our products and businesses, and consumers have high expectations for all of us in this area.
  3. We need to do better sharing our stories, but more importantly, we need to do better sharing our stories effectively, and remembering that the way we share our stories and the kind of information we provide changes depending on our audience. I’m putting together (another) future post about some things that resonate with certain audiences and other things that don’t–I was really surprised about some of these.
  4. We can always do better.
  5. We all have a stake in this. Everyone’s opinion has value. If you are reading this post, you have a voice in this conversation!
  6. This conversation is not going to be over any time soon. I hear a lot of “Sustainability is just a buzzword. Why are we still talking about this?” And maybe it was a buzzword at one time, but now it’s becoming a (hard to define but very real) thing that is taken into consideration all the way from farm to fork (to landfill/compost heap/the toy bin in your kid’s room where they stash weird little trash treasures). If we ignore it, we’ll get left behind and someone else will take our place or be our voice and we know that’s no good.

So. If you’re reading this, I don’t care who you are or how you feel about agriculture. I want to hear what you have to say because it’s important. Comment with how you feel about sustainability, or what you want to add to the conversation. Ask a question, tell me what you’re doing on your farm or ranch, let me know what you think is important for me to know!

 

Food · let's visit

Let’s Visit: How We Talk About Food

windmill

Hi! It’s Wednesday! The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, the wind is blowing…just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

So, let’s pretend we’re in my living room, and you’ve been a real pal and you’ve brought Starbucks with you because, well, you’re a real pal. We’re all comfy and just chatting away, okay? Hokay.

Today, I’m talking about something that’s not beef-specific, but is still a food thang. I thought of it this morning as I was making my morning cup of tea. I like a little caffeine and a lot of peppermint, so I use one bag of Bigelow’s Plantation Mint Green Tea, and one bag of Celestial Seasonings’ Peppermint. As I was pulling out the box of CSP, I noticed something that made me sad:

tea

Now, honestly, I try not to buy products with this seal, but I order lots of things on Amazon, and so I don’t see the actual product before I purchase and the pictures online don’t always show the most recent branding (not to mention I’ve been drinking this exact tea for over ten years because it’s my very very favorite). Also, the selection at rural grocery stores is often wanting for variation, and as more and more companies are choosing to brand their products this way, I don’t always have a choice. But branding is key here, because that’s all it is. More often than not, that little seal is a marketing tool. Why? It’s simple: there aren’t that many GMO crops, and I see this label on things for which GMO crops don’t exist. For example, on a quick perusal of my pantry, I found the following items with this seal:
Paprika
Cilantro
Fennel
Parsley
Quinoa
Salt (?!)
None of these have GMO counterparts, particularly salt since minerals have no genes to modify. So why on earth would they have a seal saying they are non-GMO? The same reason that products that don’t contain gluten and never have are branded “gluten-free”: marketing. And it makes me mad, because it doesn’t mean anything, but it imparts a message and is part of a greater campaign of fear-mongering in the way that we talk about and market food.

Think about all the terms we now use to describe food in this country: “guilt-free” means that we should associate guilt or shame with eating certain foods. “Clean” implies that other foods are dirty. “Cheat days” imply that we’re doing something bad by eating certain foods. Touting cleanses to rid the body of toxins imply that we are poisoning our bodies with the food we eat and obfuscates the function of the liver, which is actually responsible for ridding our bodies of toxins. “GMO-free” is supposed to make us feel better about what we’re eating, which implies that GMOs are bad.

I’m not saying this to condemn or judge the way people eat. I’m saying this because I don’t think we should let food companies or marketing firms influence our diets or our feelings about food. We, as consumers, should decide how and what we want to eat, with the help of our own doctors and healthcare team.

As far as GMOs go, there is no science (NO SCIENCE. As in NOT ANY) that shows that genetically-modified foods are harmful to our bodies or the environment. There is science, however, that shows that genetically-modified foods can help us feed the world by increasing yield and pest and drought resistance. There is science that shows that certain GMOs can fight malnutrition through added vitamins. Eating a genetically-modified apple is not going to be any different to your body that eating a conventional one.

(Well, it might be different to your toddler’s body because everyone knows that consuming—nay, even licking—a slightly browned apple slice will actual cause physical pain and harm to a three-year-old. (That was sarcasm there, guys, in case you didn’t catch it.)

The thing is, where this whacky marketing is concerned, food companies are only responding to what consumers say they want, or what they think consumers want. So, it’s time for us as consumers to help food companies understand that we don’t want fear-based or irrelevant marketing to become the norm in how we do food in this country (or anywhere). The best way to do that is to get to know our food and learn the truth about what’s in it for ourselves. Because, at the end of the day, companies are trying to sell us something to make more money, and it seems that there’s not much they won’t do to sway us to buy their product.

You know what I’m going to say next: ask a rancher. Ask a farmer. We know what we’re growing and have a whole lot more invested in it than just a paycheck. And instead of paying attention to fad diets, or Instagrammers, or the next gal that tells you surely you will die a toxin-filled death if you eat anything that’s not “clean”, paleo, and organic, listen to your own body, and talk to your healthcare team if you notice something that isn’t working for you. See how the foods you eat make you feel. We’re all different, and we all need a variety of foods to be our best selves.

By creating fear and misinformation about food, we are inhibiting the advancement and spread of technologies that could help us feed the world more efficiently. Many of us in this country are so lucky to have a huge array of food to choose from, but we can’t forget that not everyone in the world (or the United States) has that luxury. This fearmongering, misleading marketing, and holier-than-thou food shaming is such a privileged perspective to take about food when there are millions (billions?) of people hoping to just have enough food to stay alive.

So, let’s start changing the conversation about food. To start, #AskARancher! I’m right here!

 

Food · let's visit · On The Ranch · Personal

#AskARancher

let's talk about food

This is something that has been on my heart for a long time. And this is a long ole post, y’all, I know. In the future, though, I’ll be sharing short and sweet posts on my Instagram and I’ll try and keep the novels to a minimum.

All around us, in this age of the Internet, we are surrounded by information about everything. Which, you know, is really stinkin’ cool in a lot of ways. We’re so connected, and that’s something that I love because it helps me feel less isolated out here. But, there are a lot of things I, like a lot of people, don’t love about the Internet, and the at the top of my list is the misinformation spread by people who pretend that they know what they’re talking about.

Spoiler: they don’t always know. Not so much. I mean, come on, people are eating Tide Pods. It’s a crazy world out there, folks.

Unlike eating Tide Pods, eating food is important. It’s *literally* what keeps us alive. So, I understand the heated debates and the emotions that surround food and how it’s grown and made. But, it breaks my heart to see people being scared about the safety and quality of their food or how it was raised based upon information they found online, put there by someone who either a) has no idea what they’re talking about, b) might know what they’re talking about but has an agenda or is sponsored by a specific product or company, or c) is also just freaked out and is acting accordingly and sharing anecdotal evidence like it’s verifiable, evidence-based science.

And listen, I know there are lots of people online who are totally, 100% qualified to talk to you about your food, and I’m so glad. But to me, it feels like for every one of those, there are ten more who are the modern-day equivalent of medicine show guys with their bottles full of sugar and heroine. It seems like the very, very passionate voices on either end are drowning out the reasonable, voices in the middle, and that’s no good.

 

Please, I implore you, if you have a question about beef production, ask a (real) cattle rancher or farmer. If you have a question about fruits, vegetables, or other foods that grow out of the ground, ask a (real) farmer. If you have a question about the nutritional content of anything, ask a (licensed, non-biased, professional) nutritionist. If you are concerned that your diet is incomplete or that you are unhealthy, ask a (board-certified) doctor or consult a (registered, accredited) dietician. Use your best judgment to choose players for your team who are going to give you the best, most inclusive information. Do not turn to people sitting behind screens who harp upon the dangers or benefits of things they don’t know about, or who are peddling products or a lifestyle that doesn’t suit you. When you read articles, look for the science. Look for the proof. Look for the citations, and where they’re from. Learn about who’s doing the writing, and why. And if they are evangelizing their food choices to others to scare them, belittle them, or make them feel poorly about their own choices, I would choose to be wary of the information they are offering up.

However, wariness aside, I am absolutely not here to attack others. I am not here to tell you that you should eat beef, or what kind of beef you should eat. I’m here to show you that the people who raise your food are just like you. We are wives and husbands and parents and business owners and sports fans and Netflix enthusiasts and environmentalists and democrats and republications. We love our communities, and our people, and want to meet you and know you and welcome you into what we do, because you have a share in this, too. We love our jobs, and our ranches, and our farms, and our animals. And we want you to trust us, because this is our life’s work, and where our hearts live. It’s not a hobby, it’s not something we are merely passionate about. Growing food for you is what consumes our days, in one way or another.

I know we’re not usually the loudest voices on the internet. Part of this might be due to the work-intensive nature of agriculture, or our lack of reliable cell signal or internet.  Part of this might be due to the huge amounts of dollars some of the louder voices have behind them. And it’s scary to put ourselves out there because the internet can be a mean place, where people forget that we are all people deserving of dignity and respect. And sometimes it feels like we have a whole lot more to lose because this isn’t just a job, it’s our whole life. We don’t sit behind laptops in an office to further our agendas and then go home to our house that isn’t connected to our business. We live where we work, and the agriculture industry is already risky enough; it’s scary to open up and add more risk. I’ve had people that I know tell me, unequivocally, that I’m personally killing the planet and should be ashamed (I’m not and you cannot make me feel shame for my life, ps). I’ve had strangers tell me that I’m a bad mother for raising my children where and how I do. I’ve heard offensive and unspeakable things said to people that I respect and heard comparisons about what we do to what we do to the Holocaust (I’m not kidding, people are that classless and crass.) So it’s scary. But, you know, telling the truth is necessary, so we keep sharing, in the hopes that someone will listen to us instead of someone on Facebook sharing photoshopped pictures of animal abuse.

That’s why this blog is here. And guess what? This isn’t the only blog like this. There are piles of blog and Instagram accounts and YouTubers who share the real story of ag, and most of them don’t have an agenda. They just want to share, and to invite you into their lives and communities, and know that the more good, reasonable, smart, forward-thinking, kind voices we have in this community, the better.

You’ll find that most of these folks are like me: raising a family, raising beef, and proud to help feed the world. Here are just a few of the highly qualified folks that you can turn to about your beef, and food in general.

Buzzard’s Beat: Brandi is a wife, mama, rodeo-er, and all-around #girlboss who also happens to have a Master’s in Animal Science. She’s one of my favorite sources for no-nonsense insights into beef, even the hard stuff.

Girl Carnivore: Do you like meat? Do you want to know how to fix it and make it so delicious? Then head over to Kita’s site and get your fill of meaty goodness and gorgeous photography. This girl can grill. 

Cowgirl Boots and Running Shoes: Michaela is an ultrasound technologist-turned-fitness coach (among about ten other things) and she and her husband are raising their three children on her husband’s family farm and ranch in Nebraska. She’s my go-to for beef from a perspective of nutrition and fitness, and is so motivating!

Agriculture At Its Best: Mike has decades in so many aspects of the beef industry from livestock production and sales to 4H and the Extension Service. And, surprise, another Master’s!

Faith Family & Beef: Terryn and her family live in the Sandhills of Nebraska where they raise cattle and have an amazing pack of ranch dogs. She has a background in feeding cattle and shares what everyday life is like on a ranch in the Sandhills with three kids, and also has a ton of great recipes.

Meet Your Beef: Brooke is a fourth-generation rancher, and is also an animal health company territory manager and runs an amazing boutique (do you see the #girlboss theme here?).

Johnny Prime Steaks: Steakhouse reviews, killer photography, irreverent humor, and now a butcher shop. If you like steak–or food–at all, he’s your guy.

Arizona Beef Blog: This is the blog of the Arizona Beef Council. It showcases families and ranches from around the state to show how Arizona does beef. It’s run by Tiffany, who found a love a cattle through her love of horses.

The Circle L Ranch Blog: Naomi and her family raise cattle and horses, and also runs several businesses including a feed store and a rodeo production company. Another #girlboss who talks about everything from cooking to rodeo to parenting to ranch life, and features other dynamite women in agriculture.

Tales of a Kansas Farm Mom: Nicole and her family run a farm where they raise crops like wheat and soybeans as well as cattle. She shares recipes, stories, and what it’s like to run a diversified farm operation while being a mama.

Kellie For Ag: Kellie is another diversified farmer who raises crops and beef cattle in Iowa. She grew up in a farming family and has always wanted to be a farmer, and her passion and knowledge of the industry is plain!

Blessed by Beef: Tierra has an amazing story, and raises Angus cattle and bulls on her family’s ranch in Oregon. She’s also a photographer, and has a background in livestock marking.

Blue Eyes and Cow Pies: Kiah is a seventh-generation California cattle rancher (yes, seventh) who now lives and works in Kentucky. She knows her stuff, y’all.

Wag’n Tales: Val is a mama of four boys who farms crops and cows in North Dakota. She writes about everything under the sun, including what it’s like to be a farm mama to a little one with a serious medical condition.

Scott Stebner Agricultural Photography: Do you want to see some absolutely gorgeous photos? You do. You really, really do. His portraits move me to my soul. Head over to his site, you won’t be sorry.

Ag on the Forefront: Kelsey, her husband, and her son raise Red Angus cattle in Eastern Colorado. She’s another sharp-as-a-tack gal with a Master’s and has some amazing posts. I especially love her posts on animal welfare, and antibiotics.

The Truth About Ag: Michelle talks about some really hard things, and tackles head-on some of the most controversial aspects of ag. Her posts are well-researched and are a resource I often turn to, myself!

Dairy Carrie: Carrie and her family are dairy farmers in Wisconsin and I love her blog because she unflinchingly and very directly tackles some of the misinformation out there. I don’t know a ton about dairy (we raise beef cattle), but what I do know I’ve learned from reading her blog. It’s made me smarter!

Mom at the Meat Counter: Janeal (or Dr. Janeal as I refer to her in my head) is a bonafide meat scientist at the University of Arkansas. If you want to learn more about meat, she’s your gal, and a really excellent teacher and resource.

The Cow Docs: Jake and Carolyn are (mostly large animal) vets who also raise cattle. They blog about cow things, industry things, life things, food things…lots of things! But seriously. Two vets. With a blog. Check em out!

So, when in doubt, #AskARancher. #AskAFarmer.

let's visit

Let’s Visit: Hormones

Hi! Happy first day of the holiday season! Halloween’s over, so let’s talk Christmas!!!

I’m kidding. I’ll save that for a couple of days. Let’s talk about hormones, instead. Hormones are festive, right? Okay, not so much, but the holidays are coming up, and if you’re like many people I know, y’all are going to eat a lot of meat in the next couple of months between the turkeys, honey hams, rib roasts, and other festive fare.

Some folks like a good rack of lamb, but I am not one of those folks. Does anyone else think lamb tastes funny?

Anyways. A concern I often see cited, especially from parents, is added hormones in meat.

First off, why add hormones? Sometimes, a growth hormone implant is added to beef cattle because it helps produce leaner cuts of meat more efficiently by stimulating the animal’s pituitary gland to produce more of the animals own, naturally-occurring growth hormone called somatotropin. Adding certain hormones like estrogen and progesterone is a technology we have to increase efficiency (by 20%!) in our beef herd. Namely: more output (beef) for less input (feed). This way, we can produce more pounds beef with less natural resources.

Secondly, are they safe? Of course. Agricultural hormones have been approved and found safe by scientists all over the world, and the FDA has strict residue limits that are well below any amount that would have a known effect in humans. Hormones are never injected. They are administered in a slowly-dissolving tiny pellet (akin to melty beads, did you guys ever play with those?) that typically goes under the skin of the ear that breaks down once it’s done its job by delivering its message to the pituitary gland. And even though these amounts of added hormones are teeny-tiny, there are still stringent rules about residues and withdrawal times and the USDA tests for residues.

bulls in feedlot

That’s all great, but let’s talk numbers. Sometimes there is a misconception that when we give an animal a hormone implant, we flood that animal’s body with huge amounts of hormones to make them grow faster, and thus end up consuming vast amounts of extra hormones ourselves that can disrupt normal bodily functions or cause early development in girls*. Nope. That is 100% not how it works.

A common hormone implant called estradiol releases estrogen. But the amount of that estrogen is much smaller than you’d think!

  • Non-implanted beef contains .16 parts per billion, while implanted beef contains .22 parts per billion. So, not a big increase.
  • A 3 oz serving of eggs contains 78 times more estrogen than a 3 oz serving of implant-treated beef.
  • That same amount of tofu would deliver over 16,000,000 times more estrogen than that serving of beef.
  • A non-pregnant woman would have to eat 50,000 pounds of implant-treated beef in one day to equal the amount her body produces daily. A pregnant woman (whose body contains a lot more hormones would have to eat over 300 pounds of implant-treated beef which is a lot more than the “eating for two” calorie allotment, my friends.

Joan Ruskamp, a cattle feeder and mama (among many other things) came up with this amazing visual to show the relative amounts of hormones:

mms hormonesCabbage, peas, and potatoes all contain more hormones than the same size serving of implant-treated beef. Our bodies naturally contain many times more than that!

This is also a good time to chime in that all meat, like many other things we eat, is going to have hormones. So, if you see something advertised as “hormone-free”, yeah, that’s not a thing.

If a producer or feeder chooses to use hormone implants, he or she will work very closely with their veterinarian to find the right implant, dosage, and program that works for their animals.

If you want to read more, click here or here for posts by the Feedyard Foodie, here for a video from Joan, or here for a post by a very smart gal with a Master’s in Ruminant Nutrition.

*there is a point to be made here that while the culprit is not milk or meat, it could very likely be that our diets are now much higher in starches and sugars. Simple carbohydrates stimulate insulin production which sets off a chain reaction that ends up with the body producing more estrogen. Check out this blog post to learn a little more!

Happy Wednesday! The boys had a blast trick-or-treating last night, Bert and I had a blast meeting some new people in the area (um hi, making adult friends is hard, especially when you’re both basically hermits), and when we got home I uploaded my Christmas playlist to my phone so all is right in the world.

As always, I’m so happy to answer questions!!

let's visit

Antibiotics: Part 1

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Let’s pretend that we’re sitting somewhere cozy, with big comfy armchairs, and something delicious to sip on. Let’s say it’s chilly outside–precipiation is up to you–but there’s definitely some fall colors action. Got that in your head? Great.

Because today, we’re going to visit about…antibiotics.

Yep. Those little guys. You hear a lot about antibiotics in the fall because kids are going back to school, little ones are going to preschool for the first time, Dan’s got a cough that he brought to the office so now everyone is sick, the weather’s cooling down, life is getting busier. And on farm and ranches, calves are being born or weaned, depending on the ranch’s calving schedule, and many are getting shipped to new locations, and being on top of herd health is ever-important. Plus, cows can get the sniffles, too!

So, here are some things about antibiotics that I hear a lot, and some things about those things. I apologize, this post is on the drier side, but I can only drum up so much hilarity and sarcasm for something as science-y and important as antibiotics.

70% of all the antibiotic use in the US is in livestock. This is true. But, remember: a cow weighs a lot more than a human, even a really big human. So, they’re going to need more antibiotics. It’s all about scale here. You need more antibiotics than your kid, a cow needs more antibiotics than you.

Using broad-spectrum antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance. I talked to a vet about this, and the way he explained it was the it’s not broad- or narrow-spectrum that matters, it’s the efficacy of the antibiotic. If an antibiotic is not meant to treat pneumonia, we won’t use it to treat pneumonia. If a broad-spectrum antibiotic will effectively treat, say, pneumonia, foot rot, and pinkeye, we can use it on any one of those things and expect it to do its job safely.

Edited to add: a microbiologist friend (that I used to nanny–so proud of her!) pointed out that using antibiotics at all–in humans or animals–is going to contribute to antibiotic resistance. Reducing their misuse in both humans and livestock is an imperative, and one that we take very seriously. Thank you for helping me be more clear here, Rhodes!!

Livestock use the same antibiotics that people do, so this is where antibiotic resistance comes from. There are some antibiotics that we can use in livestock and humans–like penicillin–but the most commonly used class of antibiotics in cattle (tetracyclines) are the least commonly used in humans, and 71% of the antibiotics used in cattle are either not given to humans at all, or hardly used at all. 38% are outright not medically important to humans. In the rare instance when we do use drugs like penicillin, it’s because it’s the best choice to knock out the bug in question, which is in the best interests of everyone (see above).

In feedlots, cattle are fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick and to help them grow. No, vaccinations are used to prevent disease, and carefully formulated rations are used to help them grow. When an animal becomes sick in a feedlot, it is pulled out of the pen by a penrider, treated by a vet, and not returned to the pen until it’s well. Seriously. Also, the phrase “mass-treating livestock” sounds terrible, so that’s why the media uses it. Sometimes, an entire pen will be treated in cases where something really nasty and contagious has happened (someone showing up to the office with strep and coughing on the donuts, anyone?) but cattle are not fed antibiotics for funsies or for growth. In fact, the FDA has come out with guidance eliminating medically-important antibiotics (antibiotics often used by humans, too) from being used as growth promotants in feed and water. The FDA is also in the process of moving medically-important drugs that were previously over-the-counter to needing a vet’s permission to use.

If you eat an animal that has been fed antibiotics, you’re eating them too. I talked about this a few weeks back, but I’ll reiterate: Nope. Nope nope nope. Not a thing.  Even if an animal was treated with antibiotics, you aren’t “eating” those antibiotics when you consume that meat. All antibiotics have withdrawal periods before an animal can be slaughtered to prevent residues from ending up in meat. USDA inspectors then test the carcasses at the packing plants to ensure that residual guidelines are strictly followed. There’s literally a National Residue Program for this, and programs for continuing producer education like Beef Quality Assurance. There’s also a publicly available list of producers who have more than one residue violation. It’s updated weekly, and the USDA will use it to take extra care to inspect meat from those producers. Cattle buyers also use it to know if any of their suppliers have residue problems so they can be extra vigilant or choose not to work with that supplier. It’s a big deal, y’all, and we take it very seriously.

Also: meat from animals not treated with antibiotics is not any healthier or safer for you to eat when compared to meat from animals that were treated with antibiodics. #science.

Antibiotics happen because other herd health management didn’t. Again, a resounding nope. Beef producers work very closely with vets and nutritionists to makes sure their herd is properly vaccinated and fed so they are in the best health they can be. Antibiotics happen because an animal got sick, despite our best efforts, and we need to help it get better because that’s the right thing to do. We all know that, no matter how hard we try, we sometimes get sick and need medicine. Cattle are the same. Also: did you know that producers often give a probiotic in addition to an antibiotic, especially to young animals? It’s the truth. Someone dared me to eat some once, buuuuut I didn’t. #fraidycat #notacalf

Basically, guys, we treat animals when they’re sick. It’s the right thing to do. If you see meat that is labeled as never having had antibiotics, that does not mean the animal was better or worse cared for than an animal that was given antibiotics, or that is it better or worse for you or for the environment. Sometimes it’s luck (or lack thereof), sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s an animal’s immune system, sometimes it’s something else. Full stop.

That will do it for Part 1! It’s kind of a big subject.

More resources here, here, and here.

 

let's visit

Let’s Visit: Animal Welfare

One of the things nearest and dearest to my heart–and the heart of every single rancher and farmer that I know–is animal welfare. I’ve seen countless terrible comments, memes, articles, you name it, about the welfare of America’s cattle.

This fire first started when I was a college student. It was the my last semester of school, and I had been spending a lot of time on the ranch and visiting with ranchers and industry professionals while working on my thesis. My major was in Environmental Studies, though with an emphasis in International Policy & Development, and all Environmental Studies majors at the time were required to take Environmental Ethics. Because philosophy is one of my least favorite subjects (so abstract), I left that class until the last minute. I was pretty surprised, though, with what the curriculum ended up including. Yes, we read Peter Singer and books like Omnivore’s Dilemma and Into the Wild. But, we also watched documentaries (a whole other topic!) like Food, Inc., and Earthlings, and the professor was vehemently vegetarian and anti-meat.

I have no problem at all–AT ALL–with vegetarians, vegans, or others who choose not to eat all or certain kinds of meat. None! Some of my very nearest and dearest friends and extended family members do not eat meat. I do have a problem with people who foist their views of any kind onto impressionable students (at a public university, mind you, albeit one known for it’s “hippie” leanings) using sensational media and horrific personal anecdotes instead of facts.

There was one documentary we watched that showed an older steer with big ole horns caught in a chute, and someone de-horning him with something like a monkey wrench. Our professor said “This is something that happens to cattle in this country every day.” Guys, I lost it. Because it’s not. It really, really isn’t, and it was wildly unfair for the professor to say that it was, just like it would be wildly unfair for me to make such an incorrect and awful claim about an industry that I know nothing about, like medecine or makeup, or underwater basket weaving. Presenting that and similar footage as normal, routine, “the way things are” is so damaging. It’s obviously damaging to our industry since that kind of behavior is unacceptable and not tolerated by the vast majority of us. It’s damaging to you, the consumer, because it makes it hard for you to understand the truth, and probably really freaks you out. It’s damaging to society as a whole because we deserve better reporting and easier access to facts to help us make the very best decisions we can.

That is not “the way things are.”

In any industry, the beef industry included, there are bad people, lazy people, who cut corners, do harm, and behave poorly. But saying we all do is like saying every company is Enron. It’s just not true.

The reality is that every day, we check on our animals. Every. Day. Birthdays, Christmas, weekends, rain or shine, well or sick, every day. Sometimes this means getting in a truck and driving out to the pasture and checking on the girls en route to check waters. Sometimes this means saddling a horse and trotting out at sunrise. Sometimes this means jumping in the tractor with a bale of hay to feed and check cattle at the same time. Sometimes this means checking in the truck “real quick” and then calling your wife to bring the horses up and catch one because you found a sick animal that needs doctored immediately.

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All the ranchers and farmers I know have a similar battery of stories: staying out all night to try and keep calves alive in a blizzard. Bundling children into pickups late at night because a car ran through the fence on the county road and both mom and dad need to be there to put the cows away and fix the fence by the light of the headlights. Grown men, tough as nails, coming home defeated with tears in their eyes because there was a calf they tried so hard to save but couldn’t. These same grown men having favorite cattle that will eat cake cubes out of their hands in the pasture. These same men taking hours to dig a hole and bury an old, beloved horse or dog who died knowing he was so loved. Feeding and doctoring cattle in all weathers. Hauling water for hours every day in a drought. Cutting fences and desperately trying to save cattle in a wildfire. It goes on and on, and this is not exceptional. This is normal. This is our every day. I’m not saying this to make us sound like heroes or exceptional people. This is what is means to be a rancher, a farmer, a steward.

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Our job as the stewards of these lands and these cattle is to make sure everything is as healthy as possible, from the grass the cows eat, to the water they drink, to the dogs we use to help us move them, and to the cattle themselves. When an animal is sick, we treat it. If an animal has been treated and cannot be saved or has had a terrible accident, we humanely euthanize it so that it does not suffer. That is our job.

Want to know what I’ve heard a lot? That this is all well and good for me to say, since I live on a ranch and ranches aren’t the problem, right? It’s the feedlots and the slaughterhouses that are the real issue here.

Nope, nope, nope.

Listen, I feel you. I feel you on so many levels. Seeing cattle in feedlots can be tough. It’s not pretty, it’s a little stinky, and the scale can shock you. Seeing animals slaughtered and rendered in a packing plant is also a little shocking, and can be overwhelming.

But, I’ve visited both of those places, and have friends who live and work in feedlots or who are employees and supervisors in packing plants. And if you have doubts, I urge you to get in touch with a real, live person who can visit with you (I can help!) or, if you drive by a feedlot or have an opportunity to visit a packing plant, look closely.

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Because when you look closely in a feedlot, you’ll see happy cattle, eating and running and playing (yes, playing) with plenty of room. You’ll see pen riders on horseback checking cattle, working with the on-staff vet to treat sick ones, and working with their horses to help them learn, too. You’ll see experts and workers of all kinds making sure the cattle ration is correct for each pen, that all the fences, bunks, and waterers are in good working order, and the cattle have everything they need. If you want to read more about caring for cattle in a feedlot, I highly, highly recommend the Feedyard Foodie blog. Anne is a mother, a boss, sharp as a tack, and does a wonderful job showing that part of the beef industry.

When you look closely in a slaughterhouse, you’ll see a lot of efficiency and movement, yes. But you’ll also see people handling the cattle quietly and killing them with dignity and without pain. You’ll see state-of-the-art facilities designed by world-renowned Dr. Temple Grandin, who has incredible insight into how cattle work and how we can make them the most comfortable and calm. You’ll see each part of each animal used for a purpose so that nothing is wasted. Slaughterhouses have many, many stringent rules and regulations they must follow, and have been practically transformed in the last few decades by the work of Dr. Grandin. I highly recommend reading this if you’re wanting to learn more about the slaughter process–don’t worry, there are no graphic images.

If you have questions or concerns about the welfare of our cattle, speak up! Comment here or email me. I’ve also mentioned certain certifications you can look for if you would like to purchase meat that has been verified by an animal welfare organization.

 

 

 

 

 

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Upcycling: Bovine Edition

Last week, in our Wednesday “Let’s Visit” series, we talked about what kind of beef options are available for you to eat, based upon certain criteria you may have. This week we’re going to visit about what cows eat.

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I mean, cows eat grass, right? Totally. But cows also eat lots of other things. Pastures are not like your lawn (unless your lawn is like my lawn, which is literally just a fenced-off, irrigated chunk of pasture). They are filled with grass, yes, but also with other plants like legumes, weeds, flowers, and brush. On pasture, cows will eat seemingly strange things, like beans from mesquite trees, willow bushes, flowers, and even thistle. Bert claims he saw a cow eat a rock once, so there’s that. Cattle can also graze on corn and wheat pastures after the crops have been harvested, too. Cattle really are talented upcyclers–they take things that we consider “junk” or that we can’t eat, and convert it to things that we can. This is handy since 85% of the land that cattle graze in the United States is not suitable for human food production.

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But, a cow’s affinity for upcycling doesn’t stop in the pasture. We talk a lot about “grain-finished” beef, which can paint the picture that cattle in feedlots are fed grain of the “amber waves” variety that you’d imagine could be used to make bread and cereal and such for human consumption. In reality, 86% (over 90% in the United States) of the total food that cows eat is not edible by humans. Some of this is the “1.9 billion metric tons of leftovers from human food, fiber, and biofuel production” like wheat stalks, cottonseed, and distillers grains that would otherwise potentially become an environmental burden. They can also eat cast-offs and extras of human foods that might be thrown away and wasted like dropped pickles and rejected skittles.

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And, beef is an important part of the global diet. I’m not just saying that because I’m a rancher, the FAO is saying that, too. Livestock in general and cows specifically have an integral place in the global food system, and it’s not as a “stealer” of human food.

The very best part is that we’re getting better. We’re learning how to do more with less, how to use genetics and science to help us make our herds and feed more efficient, and how to lessen our impact on the environment every step of the way. I really recommend checking out the articles I’ve linked to here (FAO, Upcyclers) because they both talk about brand-new research about beef and its impact on global food security.

Basically, we need to give cows more credit, because if they were on Iron Chef and you were like “Uhhhhhhhh that’s not food,” they’d be like “Au contraire, mon frère,” even if y’all aren’t brothers, or French, and then they’d proceed to make a masterpiece out of skittles and wheat midds and you’d be sunk.

Until Friday, kids, unless of course my computer actually kicks it.  I thought it was dead, but turns out the old dinosaur just needed an extended break, which is happy mistake on my part. 2018 will likely be the Year of the New Laptop, however, because this old girl is on her last legs.

(Open to recommendations! I need something not too expensive that will do Word, Excel, and photo editing that isn’t a beast to carry around.)

Anyways.

We’ll get down on Friday.